King Arthur comes home

How a key Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood painting by Edward Burne-Jones ended up on a Caribbean island

Name any major artist you can think of and the chances are their work is spread across the globe.

But the curious story of how the final and, arguably, greatest work by Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones found itself in an obscure Caribbean art gallery enticed me to visit Puerto Rico to find out more and to make a documentary about it for Radio 4.

Over the past 45 years The Sleep of Arthur in Avalon has been a centrepiece of a collection of English and European master works that date right back to the middle ages and which have all been selected to live in a beautiful white modernist gallery that perches on the south coast of the island.

Burne-Jones's enormous painting, which shows the mortally wounded King Arthur with his head resting on the lap of Queen Morgan le Faye and surrounded by other beautiful women as they wait to see if he will awake, left Britain in 1963 when it was auctioned at Christies’ and bought by Puerto Rican Industrialist, philanthropist and politician, Don Luis Ferre, for his new gallery the Museo d’arte de Ponce.

To find a painting like this in a small Carribean town is bizarre to say the least.

Don Luis Ferre, who collected the works together, was a native of Ponce. He trained as an engineer and a bridge builder who (and) worked for his father in the Porto Rico Iron Works.

In the 1950s the island’s traditionally rural, agrarian market was transformed into to an urban, industrial economy, thanks largely to the ambitious US government-sponsored factory program Operation Bootstrap (“Operación Manos a la Obra”).

But while the Ferré family's new business - Ponce Cement - benefited from the government initiative. Many of the islanders didn’t and Ferré sensed that the island’s new ideology lacked a vital, spiritual dimension for the Puerto Rican people.

He decided beauty - that “essence of life” capable of elevating and enriching the human soul - was the answer to Puerto Rico’s problems. So in 1956, guided by Julius S. Held, a Rubens specialist and professor of art history at Columbia University, Ferré started collecting works of art, bringing them to the island and making them available for all the people to enjoy.

In global art terms Ferré and Held were working on a limited budget but they still targeted works from every major school of Western art. They often acquired unfashionable and underrated pictures, focussing instead on the quality and the look of the piece rather than its ‘fashion’ in the market. As Held wrote in a letter to Ferre:

“After all, what you are building up is not meant to appeal only to the taste of 1959, or not even of 1969. A museum is built for the centuries, and as long as we do not let down our standards of quality, we will come out all right, because tastes and fashions change.”

Today, as the King Arthur painting heads back home for a special exhibition at Tate Britain, Puerto Rico is an in-between place.

In the same year as Edward Burne-Jones died, leaving his Arthur painting unfinished and unwanted by Britain, the Spanish American war resulted in the ejection of Spain from Puerto Rico and the colonisation of the island by America. Since then its fortunes have been very mixed as the island has tried to find a place and an identity in the global economy. Currently its status is that of American Commonwealth: neither independent nor a full American state. Everything it does goes through the US but it has no one to represent its interests in Congress.

Ponce itself is a very poor decaying colonial town without much hope for improvement in the near future. Industrialisation hasn't really worked and the pharmaceutical companies, which have kept the economy going in more recent years, are moving out and going to countries where labour is even cheaper. But despite all this hundreds of people come to Ponce every year to visit the gallery and when they come they spend money in the town. Tastes have indeed changed since its opening in 1959, and many trends have worked in the museum’s favour as the works are sought for loan by galleries all round the world, every painting that goes on loan to another country takes the name of the town and the Island with it.

I think that if he could look down from wherever he is now, Don Louis Ferre would be very pleased with the way the gallery is continuing to use Art as a bridge, to reach out to the rest of the world in order to help the economy and enrich the lives of the people of Puerto Rico.

The Return of King Arthur is a Whistledown Production for BBC Radio 4 and will be broadcast at 1100 BST on Monday 14 April. The exhibition, Edward Burne-Jones: The Sleep of Arthur in Avalon opens at Tate Britain on Tuesday 15 April.

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No peace after progress

How the death of the industrial way of life gave us choice – and stoked resentment and fear.

Now that the making of useful and necessary things in Britain is only a shadow of what it once was, we can see more clearly the effects of the Manufacturing Age. The cost was high to the producers of prodigious wealth; a ten-year difference in life expectancy remains between people living in the richest areas and those in Glasgow. The (fleeting, it now seems) visitation of industrialism has made life more comfortable and its dismantling has liberated millions from choiceless occupations. The legacy is one of spectacular improvement, unequally shared.

Perhaps the most dramatic experience of the 20th century was the suddenness with which profligate plenty replaced a skinflint subsistence. Was it the speed of this that distracted us from wondering why, instead of the secure sustenance that generations of needy people had asked of an unyielding economic system, we were offered a promiscuous spillage of goods, promoted with quasi-religious zeal by the converts of a capitalism that had previously delivered to most of its captive workers a life of penury? Such a rapid reversal might have alerted us to changes beneath the surface that elided losses incurred.

The greatest of these was certainly not the extinction of the industrial way of life itself, release from which has been an unqualified blessing. But the transition from relentlessly work-driven lives (in the 1950s, two-thirds of Britain’s workers were still manual labourers) was marked by perfunctory obituaries for the disintegration of industrial communities, with no acknowledgement that, for a century and a half, they had represented the inescapable destiny of the people they sheltered.

Even less recognition was given to the fortitude with which they had borne a long, coercive labour. A way of life, buried without ceremony in the unmarked grave of progress, could not be mourned; and this has generated some social pathologies of our time: resentment over an arbitrary obliteration of industry, disengagement from a party of labour by those it called, like feudal lords, its “own people”, loss of memory of the economic migrants we also were, passing from the goad of industry into the pastures of consumption, and thence into the liberating servitude of technology.

Grief makes no judgement on the intrinsic value of what is lost. Absence of the known and familiar is the object of melancholy in its own right, even if replaced by something immeasurably better. Objectively, there was little to mourn in the vanished industrial way of life: insufficiency and humiliation, malice of overseer and manager, officiousness of poor-law administrator and means-test man. Male industrial workers exhausted in body and spirit, instead of protecting those for whom the power of their hands was the only shelter against destitution, visited similar punishment on their wives and children. There is nothing to be lamented in an end to the penitential life of women, scrubbing not only the red tiles of the kitchen floor, but even an arc of pavement outside the front door; their interception of men on payday before wages were wasted on beer and oblivion; the clenching against joyless invasion of their bodies in the boozy aftermath. But it was the only life they knew, and they adhered to it with grim stoicism and even pride.

There is much to be said for their resistance. The fragile lattice formed by women’s arms was often the only safety net against destitution. Trade unions and friendly and burial societies that shielded folk from economic violence foreshadowed the welfare state and the National Health Service.

The life of labouring people in Britain was strikingly homogeneous, despite diversity of occupation, dialect and local sensibility. There was the same collective experience: terraced house with parlour reserved for celebration or mourning; the three-piece suite, plaster figure on a stand behind the window, chenille curtain against the draught, engraving of The Stag at Bay on the wall; the deal table and Windsor chairs in the living room, the mantelpiece a domestic shrine with clock, candlesticks and pictures of soldiers smiling before they died; the music of cinders falling through the bars in the grate; cheerless bedrooms where husband and wife slept in high connubial state, more bier than bed, where sexual enjoyment was ritually sacrificed as flowers of frost formed on the inside of the window.

And everywhere photographs: wraithlike children with ringlets or in sailor suits, fated never to grow up; weddings in the back garden, a bouquet of lilies and a grandmother in boots and astrakhan hat; the smudged features of a kinsman no one can now identify. Identical memories, too: the shotgun wedding in the dingy finery of a Co-op hall; the funeral tableau around the grave, amid ominous inscriptions of “Sleeping where no shadows fall”; queues outside the ocean-going Savoy or Tivoli to watch Gone With the Wind; the pub where “Vilia” or “The Last Rose of Summer” was hammered out on a discordant piano.

The opening up of such sombre lives might have been expected to call forth cries of gratitude. Instead, a synthetic joy has emanated largely from the same sources that, until recently, offered people grudging survival only, the change of tune outsourced to producers of manufactured delight, purveyors of contrived euphoria to the people – a different order of industrial artefact from the shoes, utensils and textiles of another era.

***

A more authentic popular res­ponse exists beneath the official psalmody, a persistent murmur of discontent and powerlessness. Anger and aggression swirl around like dust and waste paper in the streets of our affluent, unequal society. As long-term recipients of the contempt of our betters, we know how to despise the vulnerable – people incapable of work, the poor, the timid and the fearful, those addicted to drugs and alcohol. Sullen resentment tarnishes the wealth of the world, a conviction that somebody else is getting the advantages that ought to be “ours” by right and by merit.

Rancour appears among those “left behind” in neighbourhoods besieged by unknown tongues and foreign accents: people who never voted for unchosen change, as all political options are locked up in a consensus of elites. “Give us back our country!”
they cry; even though that country is not in the custody of those from whom they would reclaim it. There was no space for the working class to grieve over its own dissolution. If, as E P Thompson said, that class was present at its own making, it was certainly not complicit in its own undoing.

Grief denied in individuals leads to damaging psychological disorders. There is no reason to believe that this differs for those bereaved of a known way of living. The working class has been colonised, as was the peasantry in the early industrial era. When the values, beliefs and myths of indigenous peoples are laid waste, these lose meaning, and people go to grieve in city slums and die from alcohol, drugs and other forms of self-inflicted violence. Though the dominant culture’s erasure of the manufacturing way of life in Britain was less intense than the colonial ruin of ancient societies, this subculture was equally unceremoniously broken. It is a question of degree. The ravages of drugs and alcohol and self-harm in silent former pit villages and derelict factory towns show convergence with other ruined cultures elsewhere in the world.

Depression is a symptom of repressed grief: here is the connection between unfinished mourning and popular resentment at having been cheated out of our fair share, our due, our place in the world. If we are unable to discern our own possible fate in suffering people now, this is perhaps a result of estrangement from unresolved wrongs in our own past. Nothing was ever explained. Globalisation occurred under a kind of social laissez-faire: no political education made the world more comprehensible to the disaffected and disregarded, people of small account to those who take decisions on their behalf and in their name.

Anyone who protested against our passage into this changed world was criminalised, called “wrecker” and “extremist”. The miners’ strike of 1984 was the symbol of this: their doomed fight to preserve a dignity achieved in pain and violence was presented by the merchants of deliverance not only as retrograde, but also as an act of outlawry. Resistance to compulsory change was derided as a response of nostalgics protecting the indefensible, when the whole world was on the brink of a new life. Early in her tenure of Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher, that sybil and prophet who knew about these things, warned that Britain would become “a less cosy, more abrasive” place: a vision confirmed by the Battle of Orgreave – redolent of civil war – and the anguish of Hillsborough.

It is too late to grieve now. Scar tissue has healed over the untreated wound. Though no one expects the ruling classes to understand the distress of perpetual “modernisation”, the leaders of labour might have been able to recognise capitalism’s realm of freedom and a gaudy consumerism that concealed hardening competitiveness and the growth of a crueller, more bitter society.

The ills of this best of all worlds, its excessive wealth and extreme inequality, are on show in hushed thoroughfares of London, shuttered sites of “inward investment”, where the only sound is the faint melody of assets appreciating; while elsewhere, people wait for charitable tins of denutrified substances to feed their family, or sit under a grubby duvet, a Styrofoam cup beseeching the pence of passers-by.

Unresolved feelings about industrialism, enforced with great harshness and abolished with equal contempt for those who served it, are certainly related to the stylish savagery of contemporary life. The alibi that present-day evils are an expression of “human nature” is a poor apology for what is clearly the nature – restless and opportunistic – of a social and economic system that has, so far at least, outwitted its opponents at every turn.

Jeremy Seabrook’s book “The Song of the Shirt” (C Hurst & Co) won the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing 2016

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain